By Bob Segall, 13 Investigates Reporter WTHR Indianapolis
Thousands of Indiana children now play sports on artificial turf. An Eyewitness News investigation finds some of those synthetic turf fields put children at an increased risk of skull fracture, infection or other injury due to inadequate maintenance and safety testing. And the investigation is already triggering action.
If your kids play sports like soccer, football, baseball, field hockey or lacrosse, they likely spend a lot of time training and playing on artificial turf.
Area schools and private sports facilities have recently installed dozens of new synthetic turf surfaces – both indoors and outdoors – and they are in high demand.
"The sales point and promotion to schools is that this is maintenance-free and you can do everything on it," Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Bobby Cox told WTHR. "The band can march on it, footballers can play on it, the physical education department can have their classes on it. Everyone wants to use it."
Despite the sales pitch, synthetic turf is not maintenance-free and can pose a heightened risk of serious injury if not properly maintained.
13 Investigates discovered some artificial turf fields in central Indiana receive little or no safety testing after they are installed, and even those that do receive routine maintenance can easily fall below basic safety standards designed to keep athletes safe.
So what's in artificial turf? Like most parents, Stephanie Shepard isn't sure.
"I honestly hadn't thought about it before," said Shepard, as she watched her 8-year-old son, Owen, practice on an indoor field at the Zionsville Youth Soccer Association.
Owen and his teammates are running – and frequently falling – on synthetic blades of grass that are supported by thousands of pounds of pulverized rubber. The tiny pieces of used car and truck tires are known as crumb rubber or in-fill, and the substance plays an integral role in the safety of the turf.
"That granulated material mixed in with the fibers gives the field its cushioning," said Andy McNitt, director of Penn State University's Center for Sports Surface Research. "Slowly the crumb rubber leaves with the athletes. It doesn't happen all at once, but slowly and almost imperceptibly the crumb rubber leaves the system over a period of three to five years. As the rubber leaves, your cushioning leaves so the surface becomes much harder."
A harder surface increases the risk of concussion when a player's head hits the turf.
Too much crumb rubber softens the surface to the point where athletes must exert extra energy to perform. Some field managers say that places extra strain on joints and muscles, putting athletes at a higher risk for ankle, knee and lower back injuries.
That's why the NFL now mandates testing on every field before every game – primarily to detect if a playing surface is too hard and poses an increased concussion risk for its players.
McNitt oversees the NFL's turf testing program, which calculates each field's Gmax level. "The Gmax is really, in layman's terms, how hard that surface is when you fall on it," he explained. It's actually pretty simple. A human head weighs about 12 pounds. So to calculate Gmax, a portable computerized device drops a 12-pound weight to determine the amount of force between the weight and the field at impact. The harder the surface, the higher the Gmax score and the higher the risk of a concussion.
"We definitely want the Gmax level below 200," McNitt said. "At 200, there is a danger that there would be a skull fracture."
(There are several different devices that calculate Gmax levels based on a scientific protocol established by the American Society for Testing and Materials, and they rely on different measurements. The F355 device uses an upper Gmax limit of 200, while the smaller Clegg impact tester has an upper limit of 100. McNitt was referencing readings on an F355 unit.)
While Gmax testing is mandated in professional football, the Center for Sports Surface Research says the testing is done only occasionally at the collegiate level and even less frequently on the thousands of athletic fields and sports facilities used by younger athletes. The Zionsville Youth Soccer Association, where Owen Shepard plays soccer, conducts a Gmax test annually. The organization had its most recent test earlier this month and invited WTHR to witness the test.
"After testing was done last year, we had several big readings, so I fully expect we might have high readings again this year -- simply because of the number of teams and the number of hours this facility is used," said ZYSA facilities director Tim Gernhard, who pointed out that a playing surface gets harder as crumb rubber becomes more compacted over time.
His expectation was accurate. While some locations on the soccer field tested within acceptable safety limits, the Gmax readings in other areas reached levels as high as 225.
"As a certified Gmax technician, I have to report that is a dangerous situation," explained Field Groomers general manager Stan Moscrip, who conducted the ZYSA testing. "I'm required to give my recommendation that no future athletic play be allowed on that field until remediation events are taken care of."
Gernhard took the news in stride.
"We want to be proactive as a club to prevent our members from getting concussions," he said. "This is exactly why we have Field Groomers come out and do this sort of thing. This is the information you want to know." But some schools and private sports facilities do not know the Gmax levels of their artificial turf.
"Brand new turf is usually fine for the first two or three years, but after that is when we start to see problems," said McNitt. "You like to see some kind of testing done at least once a year at minimum to show you're doing your due diligence."
"We see some fields that are in really rough shape," said Moscrip, who tests and manicures synthetic turf fields throughout the Midwest. "A lot of schools don't test at all – not until an accident or injury does happen – so they have no idea and, unfortunately, neither do the parents and neither do the administrators in a lot of places."
13 Investigates contacted more than 40 local schools, universities and private sports facilities with artificial turf fields to gather information about their turf testing and maintenance. Only 25% of them provided WTHR with a recent Gmax test scores. Some admitted they haven't tested their turf for years, while others have never tested their synthetic fields since they were first installed.
"It was tested when it was built … but we have not had a test done since," said Franklin Community Schools athletic director John Regas, speaking about the synthetic turf on the district's high school football field. "April 2007. That was the last time we conducted a Gmax test on the field." Regas told 13 Investigates school maintenance staff provide regular care for the turf. He also said the synthetic turf installer gave the school district an 8-year warranty that guarantees the field will retain a Gmax level below 200.
"How would you know if the field is within that safety limit and whether you need to file a warranty claim if you've never tested the field during the past eight years?" WTHR asked Regas. "That's a fair question, and I don't have an answer for that other than to say you'd have to ask the installer," he replied. The athletic director for Zionsville Community Schools tells Eyewitness News the artificial turf at that high school football field has not been tested since installation, either. That was 2010.
Weeks after receiving WTHR's request, Warren Township, Wayne Township, Martinsville, Greenfield and Hamilton Southeastern school districts have not provided any information about their turf. Other schools say they cannot find their Gmax test reports. The lack of information and routine testing concerns the Indiana High School Athletic Association.
"These school corporations and these private organizations hear it's maintenance-free so they install this product and then they turn their head," Cox said. "You can't look at turf fields and say it's a million dollar investment so we don't need to worry about it. I think it's just the opposite. If it's a million dollar investment, you better be worrying about it every day and making sure it works and that it's safe."
Franklin Community Schools tells WTHR it has now asked its turf installer to perform a Gmax test in April so the school district can address any potential problems before its turf warranty ends this summer. Zionsville Community Schools says it has scheduled a Gmax test for this spring, as well. RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield is taking action immediately. The indoor facility's Community Health Network training field is covered in synthetic turf that is more than a decade old, and the owner admitted the turf had never had a Gmax test.
"I've never even heard of it. I didn't even know what that was," RoundTripper owner Chris Estep told WTHR last week. When he learned about WTHR's investigation, Estep scheduled a test right away. In some areas of the turf, the test results were – in Estep's own words – terrible. Crumb rubber levels were depleted to less than half their original depth, creating a dangerously hard playing surface with some Gmax readings topping out above 250. "I never would have thought that here, especially since how much we take care of the turf," Estep said.
The good news: it's easy to fix.
RoundTripper staff quickly added more crumb rubber to its synthetic field. Zionsville Youth Soccer Academy did the same thing. Within minutes, the Gmax readings at both facilities were back to safe levels.
"That's pretty remarkable, and it doesn't take long to address those areas and make them safer for kids," Estep said. "No one knows about this, and I think over time by stories like this being done, people will go ‘Hey, how do I fix this?' We're going to start doing it every year. If you're not testing, you're not doing your job and it's a disservice to anyone who steps on your field," Gernhard added.
Cox says mandating proper testing and maintenance for Indiana's synthetic athletic fields would be difficult for IHSAA, but he thinks the organization can help to raise awareness among school administrators and athletic directors. "I do believe it's something the association can assist schools in. We need to provide encouragement and education and help our schools where we can, and this is an important topic" he said. "I think we can do more on this."
A survey of Indiana field grooming and testing companies shows a comprehensive round of independent Gmax testing costs between $200 and $800, based upon the type of equipment used and the size of the playing surface. McNitt recommends schools and facilities that have synthetic turf purchase their own testing equipment – a basic Clegg impact tester is available for about $4000 – to reduce the long term cost and to provide easy access to routine monitoring.
"The smartest investment is in purchasing the device yourself because if you go out and do the test regularly and do basic maintenance based on that testing, you can significantly extend the life of your field," he said. An average artificial turf football field costs approximately $750,000 and is expected to last approximately ten years. If diligent maintenance extends the life of the field for two additional years, the annual cost savings of $12,500 more than covers the cost of a testing device and additional maintenance.
"My best advice is buy your own device and test routinely, and maybe every other year bring in somebody to do an independent test. It shows a basic level of care is going into that field," said McNitt, who also recommends that field managers look to the Sports Turf Managers Association for training and resources. For Estep, the cost of testing was well worth the price. "It's the best 500 bucks I've spent," he said. "I've made sure I'm doing my due diligence as a business owner and as a father, knowing when my kids come in here and play, they're in a safe environment."
Proper maintenance of synthetic turf goes beyond testing the turf's hardness, according to Moscrip. He showed 13 Investigates plastic bags full of sharp metal objects – screws, nails, pins and track spikes – removed from artificial turf fields in central Indiana. "When I first saw what they pulled out of our field, I said ‘You gotta be kidding me!'" Gernhard said. "I couldn't believe it."
"You'll never see them, and you would not know they're there unless you would use a magnet to pull them out," he said, adding that there is plenty more hiding in synthetic turf fields. "Athletes sweat and they spit and they bleed, unfortunately. It can be a very unhealthy area to play in," he said. Cleaning the turf with sanitizers or special UV light kills harmful bacteria that can cause infection in athletes, and several Indiana companies provide those services to schools and private sports facilities willing to pay for them.
But facing tight budgets, some choose to limit or cut back on maintenance and testing, or simply believe it is not necessary on a surface originally promoted as maintenance-free. McNitt says the times have changed, and he has a message for field managers who allow years to pass without conducting testing and maintenance:
"Get your head out of the sand. That may have been fine years ago, but that just shows a neglect of the field," he said, shaking his head.
Note: Last year, NBC News and KOMO-TV reported on a different concern involving artificial turf, questioning whether chemicals in crumb rubber led to certain types of cancers in athletes who are exposed to the crumb rubber on soccer fields. While there is no direct scientific link between the reported cancer cases and the crumb rubber found in synthetic turf, the investigations have prompted nationwide calls for more research.
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